From essential attractions like the Apartheid Museum, the Soweto township, and the Lion Park, to a burgeoning scene of hipster bars, cafes and clubs, Francesca Lynagh runs the rule over South Africa’s largest metropolis…
It’s a city too often regarded as merely a pit-stop destination, before catching a connecting flight into the bush, or to its overbearing big sister, Cape Town. But Joburg (also known locally as Jozi) consistently gives travellers plenty of reasons to extend their stay.
Often dismissed as a crime hotspot to be avoided, Joburg’s reputation deserves to be overturned. Anyone with such negative pre-conceived ideas of Joburg, take note: the city is quickly evolving into a hipster’s paradise, an eclectic and quirky mishmash of cultures, and a perfect destination for a short break.
Nowhere is the city’s recent renaissance more obvious than in downtown Maboneng, in the east of the Central Business District (CBD). Once a derelict part of Johannesburg, it’s now bursting with quirky cafes, trendy modern art galleries and chic rooftop bars. No longer avoided in favour of the wealthier northern suburbs, it’s become a place “to be seen” for locals and visitors alike. It’s a true triumph of inner city reinvigoration.
Overall, if you can imagine a sprawling and vibrant African city with a vibe almost as trendy as Copenhagen’s achingly cool Vesterbro area, and then mix that with great quality food from all other world, and top it off with beautiful weather, then you’ve got something like Johannesburg.
Perhaps it’s time to give Jozi a chance.
Best of the Beaten Track
Johannesburg doesn’t have a tourist checklist of “must-see” sights like most other cities, but there are certain things to do that are worth checking out during your visit.
No trip to South Africa would be complete without acknowledging it’s turbulent history, so make time for the Apartheid Museum for a powerful summary. It’s a humbling experience but an essential excursion for any traveller to better understand the fabric of this multi-faceted country. On Sundays head down to the Arts on Main indoor market in the trendy CBD. Try some delicacies from Ethiopia and beyond, sip on some freshly squeezed juice and spend the afternoon browsing around the independent shops upstairs.
Make time for the lion park situated about a half an hour drive from the centre of Johannesburg, if you haven’t got a safari planned as part of your trip. Park the car and hop into the safety of one of the game drive vehicles and watch lions in a relatively natural setting. In the affluent and more commercial area of Sandton, you’ll find one of the city’s best malls, and there are many of them. At one end is Nelson Mandela Square, where a huge statue of the man himself stands, with whom some visitors enjoy taking selfies.
For a wide range of guided tours, activities and things to do, consult global experts Get Your Guide.
For all the hipsters out there, Joburg won’t disappoint. Those searching for the perfect coffee, try The Grind Coffee company in Melrose Arch; your espresso will be served in a chocolate-lined ice cream cone. A great way to kickstart the long weekend in Jozi. After you’ve checked out the Arts on Main stalls, it will be about time for a drink at one of Maboneng’s discreet rooftop bars. The Living Room plays chilled out drum’n’bass all day for its stylish guests (you are very much a guest, and not a punter here). The decor in this bar is impeccable and plentiful greenery hangs from the roof, making for a seriously cool vibe. It’s a perfect spot to gaze, and sip, the evening away watching the sun slowly setting over Jozi.
If it’s too busy (you do have to pay a small entrance fee), try a lesser known, but not any less cool gin and whisky bar, called Agog. A short walk away from the main street, you’ll see the wine cellar first, before being directed upstairs through a modern art gallery. Go even further up and the narrow steps will open up onto a very cool rooftop bar, with a whisky bar on one side, and a gin bar on the other, and of course a swing in the middle of the bar. It’s oh-so-hipster but the view of derelict buildings gives you a sense of how far the area has come in recent years.
Experience & Events
For a unique experience head downtown and find the kooky cinema called Bioscope which screens independent films only to about 60 people at a time. The seats are car seats, and beer and pizza are on offer throughout the movie. In late summer of every year (usually March) the city puts on a wine festival, designed to bring the Western Cape’s best wines to Joburg’s biggest township, Soweto. The Soweto Wine festival is a weekend event offering the chance to try the country’s best wine, sample gourmet food and enjoy the performances of local bands, all in one of the most vibrant areas of Johannesburg. Buy tickets online beforehand. And if you’re not in town for the fest, you can still travel to Soweto year around, and see Mandela’s house and see a different side of life in South Africa. Check out this full day tour by Get Your Guide, or this cycling tour offered by Urban Adventures.
For the sportier types, there’s a rather unusual night-time activity on offer here – Neon Run. But, that’s only if you actually fancy trail running at night along the city’s river. Bring your trusty head torch with you or buy one at the start and set off along the 5k or 10k course. Some of the events are even themed, so be sure to raid the fancy dress box beforehand.
If dinner at one of Joburg’s many decent ground-level restaurants will not suffice, then try something a little different; sky dining. A Sandton-based experience, called “Dinner in the Sky” offers 22 guests at a time the chance to eat dinner 100ft in the air, with their legs dangling below.
The Southern Sun at Hyde Park is a swanky hotel offering a stunning rooftop pool and bar, perfect for sun downers. It’s attached to Hyde Park Mall which houses some of the most exclusive fashion brands, including Burberry and Lacoste. The Protea Hotel Fire & Ice! Hotel is a stylish and well-located option for a pleasant stay in Joburg’s Melrose Arch area. It gets good reviews, but it has one selling point in particular; a 24 hour milkshake bar, with over 100 combinations on offer. Handy! Self-catering and quirky, the 12 Decades Art Hotel fits in perfectly with the trendy vibe of it’s Maboneng surroundings. It’s good value and all the restaurants and bars are right on your doorstep.
To check availability on over 400 hotels – and quickly filter your options via ratings/reviews and price – head over to Booking.com.
The quality of food in Johannesburg is generally very high, with an array of cuisine from all over the world. For an old-school South African experience though, Wombles restaurant is top of the list. The big wicker chairs and impeccable service are almost as good as the succulent steaks. Pizza fans won’t be disappointed by the recent opening of Coalition in Rosebank. It’s simple and cheap with only about seven tables, so try to book beforehand. There’s even a speakeasy bar attached; subtly ask the waiter to show you through after dinner. The alleyway is creepy, but stick with it.
For a laid-back evening on a roof terrace where food and drinks will both flow freely, try Tiger’s Milk in Bryanston. Recently opened, it’s more of a locals bar with a young and friendly crowd. Head down to the inner city again for a great night of live music at the Good Luck Bar. It’s one of Joburg’s oldest bars and has become even more famous as the backdrop for Matthew Mole’s recent music video for the song “Run”. Finish the night in the bustling courtyard of Lenin’s Vodka Bar, which, as you might expect, serves a wide range of vodka-based cocktails, and is a big hit with the hipster crowd.
Getting There & Around
From London catch a British Airways or South African Airways flight direct to Johannesburg, taking about 11 hours. Alternatively fly via Dubai with Emirates for a bit cheaper. The Gautrain is a good option to get into Sandton from the airport, but if the night flight exhausted you, hopping in a Uber to the hotel is a good option.
The “In Your Pocket” guide to Johannesburg has lots of useful information about upcoming events in the city. Exhibitions and festival won’t miss your radar if you give this website a quick skim before you visit.
Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is obviously a good bit of literature to start with. It will help understand all sorts of South African quirks and societal tensions, and will most likely enrich the experience of visiting Johannesburg.
I would avoid watching any documentaries on Johannesburg before you come. The city is often the subject of films focussing only on the inequality and crime here. None of this is untrue, there is indeed quite a lot of crime and stark inequality here, but there is so much more to know about the city, especially in recent years. Don’t cloud your judgement unnecessarily. Meanwhile, science fiction fans might note that the short film Alive in Joburg was a precursor to the box office hit District 9.
Soundtrack to the City
Matthew Mole – Run
Jain – Makeba
Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal, The Very Best, Beatenberg – Wona
Black Motion – Imali (feat. Nokwazi)
Mobi Dixon – Trigger ft. Inga Hina
Feature photo by Martijn Munneke. Keep going for more travel guides to African cities.
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